One couple's account of life on their homestead, and tips for sustainable living.
Homesteading in the Ozark mountains can be a tough way to make a living.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/KATHLEEN STRUCKL.E
It's been many moons since I last checked in with a report (see "Up on the Farm"), and in the intervening period Bill and I have learned so much about living in the Boston Mountains of north-central Arkansas that I feel absolutely obliged to write a follow-up to my first story.
I'd also like to mention that we've met some lovely human beings as a result of my first article, and that we've received a bumper crop of correspondence from folks who want to know more about the Arkansas Ozarks. We've gotten so many inquiries on land prices and availability, climate conditions, and ways of making a living in this region—in fact—that I'll try to cover these subjects here.
Land: Since March 1973—which is when we bought our 40 acres for $12,000—real estate prices have risen dramatically. So much so that some truly monumental rip-offs are being attempted in our area. Still, reasonably priced land can be found, if you take the time to look for it.
Some friends of ours have written to inquire about a nearby tract of unused acreage, but to date have received no replies to their queries. Perhaps if the owners of the property ever begin to feel the pinch, they'll be more interested in selling (or at least opening their mail). Right now, it's not a buyer's market.
Climate: We have a long growing season which—many times—allows us to raise three successive crops. Last year, for example, we began to plant some vegetables in our garden as early as February 27. To be completely truthful about the matter, though, we planted too much too soon and had to replant when a later cold spell killed some of our seedlings. (This is said to be a problem common to many beginning gardeners so I guess we shouldn't feel too embarrassed but, next year, well try to contain. ourselves.)
Our first killing frost came in mid-November during both of the past two years and the winters were light. We had little snow --maybe a couple of inches each year—and while the mercury occasionally dipped into the teens at night, the days were considerably warmer ... sometimes shooting into the 60's and 70's.
We've found, incidentally, that there are distinct climatic advantages to living on a mountaintop. When a frost hits, for instance, it'll actually "slide off" the peaks and settle into the valleys below. Thus, a late frost last spring left the peach trees on farms below us with nary a blossom (and no fruit for the year) . . . while our mountaintop orchard was virtually untouched.
Also, an almost-constant breeze both keeps us at least ten degrees cooler in summer than the valley towns we overlook and blows the mosquitoes away. (The man up the road reports that he has swarms of the little varmints, though. You figure it out.)
There is one drawback to living on a peak, however, and that's when our constant breeze turns into a full-fledged gale . . ..as it sometimes does. Last spring, for instance, the wind blew our mulch somewhere over into the next county, and got so bad at one point that we almost had to stake the broccoli. (I wish now that we had because—believe it or not—some of the plants were twisted right out of the ground!) And, instead of having a fine stand, we ended up with a fine slant of corn.
As for soil some of ours is good and some is bad. The dirt in our garden, for example, is excellent, yet the earth in the orchard—a few yards away—is extremely poor (as we learned when we planted row crops between the young trees). To put it another way: In our first year here, a pumpkin from the garden produced three pies . . . while the next year it took three pumpkins (our entire harvest) from the orchard to, make one pie. Likewise, we had squash from our garden all winter long last year. . .but this year, having made the mistake of planting all our squash in the orchard, we ended up with none, As a result, we've learned to live on whatever turns out well (disproving, in the process, the old saying, "Man does not live by broccoli alone!").
Like most everyone else who's moved up into these hills, we'd counted—at first—on being able to sell our excess produce for a little extra income. The bitter fact of life, however, is that you've got to have enough of any one crop (or crops) ripening at the same time to warrant a trip into town to sell the goods. Otherwise, you could easily spend more money on gasoline than you might make on the transaction.
Fact is, even if you never sell produce in town it takes considerable planning to keep your trips to civilization (an hour's drive each way over miserable roads) to a minimum so as to conserve gas, wear and tear on the truck, and your own time. We keep a running list of everything that must be ordered, bought, picked up, returned, or repaired ... and long before an item gets used up or worn out it must be added to the list (otherwise it's gone before we can replace it). Also, we've learned to call ahead before going into town to pick up a Sears order (it won't be there if you simply show up and ask for it) or to retrieve a pet (it'll be the vet's day off). Organization, we've found, is a very important key to the successful operation of a somewhat remote homestead.
Unfortunately, even the best laid plans must reckon with Kruse's Law, which is: Just when you think you have everything you need and you don't have to go out for a month, the pump will break down the next day (necessitating a trip into town for a $1.99 replacement part).
And you will figure out how to install replacement parts yourself—believe me—along with learning to do your own carpentry, masonry work, plumbing, wiring, etc. You'll have to. Because, after all, why should anyone bother to trek all the way out to the backwoods to do these things for you when he can find plenty of work closer to home?
Still and all, it's possible to live quite inexpensively here in the mountains (especially if—as in our case—your land is already paid for), though I won't try to give you an exact figure since, these days, prices change so rapidly. Suffice it to say that bartering—no less than gardening, canning, or freezing—is an essential skill for any homesteader to have. Because of the high cost of feed, fencing, and hutch-building materials, we've come to the conclusion that it'd cost more for two people to raise chickens, rabbits, etc., than to buy them outright or to barter for them. The same goes for other items. Thus, one might swap vegetables for eggs, reloaded shotgun shells for a cleaned rabbit, or a painting for a poncho. Somewhere along the line, of course, one does need a little of the green folding stuff . . . 'cause Arkansas Power and Light won't accept chickens.
Which brings up the subject of (ahem) how to make money in the boondocks. Making a living here per se is practically impossible, because there are few "regular" jobs available. If you have a much in demand skill, such as carpentry or wiring, you could probably get along all right. But not everyone has such talents.
Some of the members of a nearby commune follow the apple picking for a few weeks each fall and make enough to squeak by on during the rest of the year. Other folks up here in the hills get by only because social security, a disability pension, an armed forces retirement check, or some other "gimmick" regularly guarantees them a small but steady income. An ex-serviceman, for instance, can enroll at a nearby agricultural school and receive $52 per week in G.I. Bill benefits by attending classes for two hours a day, three days a week. This— for us—would be manna from heaven. Unfortunately, Bill has been out of the service too long to qualify for the program. But it's well worth looking into, if you're a veteran and thinking of settling in this area.
If you have a talent for handcrafting and live near a tourist center, the shops there will probably be interested in handling your work. While some stores will buy the things you make outright (and set their selling price at about 100% over what they paid you), others prefer to work on a consignment basis and pocket a commission of from 20 to 40%
when an individual object is sold. In either case, you must set your prices high enough to pay for your labor and materials, but low enough to encourage the final consumer to fork over the shop in question's price as marked (which will have the commission added in).
In order to make money this way, needless to say, you must be dependable. If you promise a dozen place mats by the end of the month, you've got to be able to produce and deliver as promised, or the owner of the shop handling your line-understandably -won't be anxious to do business with you the next time around.
It helps, too, to be flexible. If you find—as I did—that a certain shop owner specializes in making what you make (and therefore obviously doesn't want or need your handiwork) you should immediately find out what he or she does need and see if you can provide it. This could lead you onto an interesting and profitable new path.
As I said at the beginning, Bill and I have learned an awful lot about living in the country during the past year and a half. And I guess one of the most important things we've had to face and overcome is what it means to be really, truly isolated. We've learned, for instance, that we mustn't set the house on fire, as there's no hook and ladder truck available, no handy fire hydrant, and no fire insurance (the company canceled the policy and returned out money when they finally located our place on the map).
Likewise, we try not to fall off a ladder, eat a bad mushroom, etc., on Saturday nights, when finding a doctor would be almost impossible ... even if we did get to town OK.
If someone had told me when we first moved here that I'd be using an outhouse for the rest of my natural life, I think I would have said "Well, this is a nice place to visit, but . . . " and hied myself back to the city. For our first year, though, we did—in fact—only have an outhouse. The problem was (and is) that since we live on a rocky mountaintop, it's not practical for us to dig out a hole and install a septic tank. (Even if we could afford to install one, we'd still have to worry about whether or not we're polluting the streams and ponds below us.)
Ultimately—on the recommendation of one of Ken Kern's books—we sent for a $400 contraption called the Destroilet which, with the aid of gas (natural or propane) and electricity, burns human wastes.
At first, we were quite enthused about the device. Its conventional looking "business end" meant that I could purchase that ultimate status symbol of the backwoods: a toilet brush.
Once the Destroilet was working, however, we began to have our doubts. For one thing, it sounds like a boiler factory (for a total of fourteen minutes and twenty-nine seconds) every time it's "flushed". And what the contraption prevents in the way of water pollution, it almost makes up for by fouling the air. (The Destroilet was originally intended for use aboard boats ... which would be fine, since you can weigh anchor and sail off after each flush. It's a bit harder to escape the smog, however, when the infernal device is located in your house.)
Despite the Destroilet's shortcomings, though, we do appreciate it when we have guests and during those cold winter nights when a trip to our drafty old broken-down outhouse is too horrible to contemplate. Nonetheless, we intend to build a new privy soon, using plans from one of MOTHER's back issues.
A short letter in MOTHER some time back recommended that pet owners give their furry friends yeast every day to prevent flea infestation . . . the theory being that fleas only attack animals which are deficient in B vitamins. Well, we tried giving our elderly cat 1/4 teaspoon of nutritional yeast per day ... and found that the treatment not only rid her of fleas, but also cured three different skin problems she was having (one of which was chronic enough to require shots every three months).
On the strength of this, I decided (not knowing that one of the cat's skin problems would return) to try the yeast therapy myself, for a foot condition which I have each winter. Unlike our pets, who come running any time they hear the jingle of measuring spoons (the dogs, incidentally, get a half teaspoon per dose), I found the taste of the yeast utterly repulsive. I'm not sure the treatment helped, either (although it can at least be said that I have no fleas). What finally did do the trick was comfrey tea, which I both soaked my feet in and drank ... not necessarily in that order.
A few quick tips: Bugs can be a real nuisance in warm weather, especially when you own an orchard. We settled the hash of a few hundred Japanese beetles with a syrupy solution made from fallen peaches, old jams and jellies, and anything else sweet that we could find mixed with water. All we did was stir the mixture together in a bucket and hang it from whatever tree the pests seemed to be attacking. The insects were attracted to the sticky glop (especially after it had hung for a few days) and flew into it and drowned.
Another thought: If a crop-dusting or tree-poisoning plane is spreading its chemicals too close to your boundaries for comfort, simply go out and stand in a clearing by your fence and wave him away. (It helps if the hand you wave happens to be holding a lever-action rifle.)
Polecats: If you have pets, put aside a "skunk first aid kit" consisting of tomato juice, a bottle of boiled water, a sponge, cotton balls, and—perhaps—a jug of wine. Then, when your intrepid guard dog decides' to chase away a strange-looking black and white "pussycat", you'll be prepared for the inevitable outcome.
First, if they've been sprayed, pour the sterile water directly into your afflicted hound's eyes. Use plenty. (Don't bother with an eyedropper ... just let the liquid pour.) We've heard of a dog going blind from belated treatment for skunk juice in the eyes. Next, take your sponge and rub tomato juice well into any part of the dog's coat that has been hit. Then, when you find that this is not the panacea you'd been led to believe it was, open the jug of wine and start drinking.
The skunk that caused us trouble was of the hog-nose variety: all-white back, weasel-like face, and deadly to chickens. Whatever variety of polecat you run up against, though, be sure to chase him out from under the house before you shoot him.
One final hint: Start keeping a diary. Just a paragraph jotted down each evening will prove invaluable to you later on as you're wondering when the first frost hit last year, or on what date you planted a certain crop, or how long ago the dogs had their last rabies shots. Your diary will also bring back the thrill of seeing your very first loaf of home baked bread emerge from the oven, remind you when to, start watching for the return of those goofy road runners to the orchard, and recreate the feeling you had the night you became a "grandparent" to a litter of active, squeaking puppies.
In short, it's always both interesting and instructive to look back at journal entries made 12 months earlier. For instance, one of my notes reads: "Water line frozen early; temp dropping all day. Caulked cracks and stapled newspapers over torn wallpaper to keep wind from whistling through bedroom." That room-the one I'm sitting in right now-has since been paneled, sub-floored, and vinyled, and is now my cozy little studio. Long gone are the staples and the newspaper that kept last winter's winds out of this cubicle.
The rest of our house has been similarly refurbished. Bill has learned more about rock laying and carpentry than he ever wanted to know, and is now concentrating on finishing his shop so he can get started on other, more creative kinds of woodworking.
To put it another way, it's easy to see what remains to be done, but sometimes you lose sight of how much you've already accomplished. And that's what makes being able to glance back at your progress (as reflected in a diary) both rewarding and reassuring.
From our vantage point of almost three years' experience as homesteaders, we now look at newcomers in our area and wonder sometimes if we could possibly have been that unseasoned such a short time ago. If it's true that "You're as green as the wood you bum your first winter", then the answer is clear. We were indeed green.
Well, young'uns, as we go to press, this pair of middle-aged dropouts is preparing to temporarily leave the farm and "drop in" on society again ... at least for a while. Our present financial condition, you see, is what you might call fluid. (In other words, we're going down the drain!)
Why? Mainly because of the thousands of dollars we've had to spend to refurbish this place, over and above the original purchase price. Along with that, the market which we thought existed for our wares simply has not materialized. Thus, our homestead is now up for sale and we've taken to combing through back issues of MOTHER, pencil in hand, jotting down copious notes on moneymaking ideas.
Don't get us wrong ... our three years of farm life have been well invested. We've learned a colossal number of interesting and important (to us, at least) things. And how else but by leaving our Chicago suburban home could we have acquired and raised a couple of million-dollar dogs?
No, folks, you haven't heard the last of us. We'll be back. For just as hope springs eternal, so do the Kruses. (And the same goes for Jerusalem artichokes. So don't plant them in or near your garden!)
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